Equine Assisted Wellness
Equine Assisted Wellness
- What horses need to hear from us is what many of us would like to hear from ourselves, and each other. They need us to have a calm, focused assurance. They need us to be consistent. They need us to be assertive yet non-threatening. They need us to be both strong and compassionate. In short, horses need us to be our best selves. ¾ Chris Irwin, Horses Don’t Lie
Addiction is a brain disease. The last decade has characterized an unprecedented watershed of research and advancing medical technology. As a result, we have been able to begin penetrating the mysteries of the brain. The neuroscientific research has identified the neuropathology and neuroadaptive effects that together characterize the disease of addiction.
Findings have further identified that the disease of addiction begins as dysregulation of the hedonic system of the brain (e.g. the ability to perceive pleasure). This dysregulation has a direct effect on the individual ability to mediate stress. Neuroadaptive changes affect the addict’s ability to properly perceive or experience pleasure while reducing the coping skills required to mediate the effects of stress. The disease progresses to a point where the ability to self-regulate and exercise will are deeply impaired. Brain scans demonstrate that the executive control of the frontal cortex is compromised, and that the mid-brain begins dictating craving and choice. In other words, the disease of addiction evolves to a point where it disables the ability to exercise choice.
Additionally, addiction affects the brain systems that regulate learning, memory, emotions and motivation. In an addicted brain, these translate to what appears to maladaptive behavior. The stigma associated with the disease of addiction is plagued with the false attributions of defective moral character and personality defects. Although five decades of research argue the validity of these beliefs, many still treat addiction with moral contempt and imprisonment.
With the biological conditions that characterize the disease of addiction better understood, we are beginning to contextualize the initiation, persistence, and recovery processes of addiction. The research underscores the nature of stress and its role in stress-response diseases, in this case, addiction.
Specific stressors, and the ways in which these stressors correlate with onset, maintenance and recovery, are largely unique to individuals. Stress signatures take place within the context of meaning intrinsic to the individual. Additional factors that play into stress include social context, social position, genetics, life experience and developmental stage.
Through the years, addiction has been treated using an acute care model, even though addiction is characterized as a “chronically relapsing disorder.” Addiction is a chronic disease requiring a disease management approach that takes place over the course of a life time. Like any chronic disease (e.g. diabetes), addiction requires an acute phase of treatment (e.g. medical detox and stabilization) during which patients are stabilized, physical healing takes place, and people have the opportunity to gather the tools they can use to manage the disease. Treatment is typically residential and can last for a period of 30 to 90 days, depending on the individual. This, however, is just the beginning.
Every component of recovery requires knowledge of the human condition characterized by a will to meaning and its link to wellness and/or disease. Because the disease of addictions hijacks the healthy brain systems that would normally regulate behavior, meaning seeking and meaning making and lack of coping skills can challenge fulfillment. Equine-assisted wellness techniques provide an effective hedonic rehabilitation approach within a relational context that is easily transferable to other areas of life. Experiential opportunities assist in healing and restoring a life of meaning.
Equine Assisted Personal Development provides those who are in recovery experience with horses designed to promote self-awareness and relational growth. The human-horse process teaches participants about themselves within a relational context, helps them become aware of behavioral patterns and to better understand the dynamics of healthy relationships.
Horses live in the here and now. They live in a moment of judgment based on communication and relational trust. They respond in the here and now based upon the way participants communicate with them. Horses help make participants aware of their emotional state because the horse responds to the way the participants is choosing “to be.” In working with the horses, participants gain insight into their feelings, behaviors and mixed messages.
Equine Assisted Personal Development occurs in individual and a group setting. Sessions are facilitated by a licensed professional and a trained equine-assisted horseman and life coach. The process involves establishing a relationship with a horse on the ground and evolves into nurturing that relationship. Activities include joining up with the horse, grooming, lunging, Natural Horsemanship training and group exercises. The professional facilitators observe the interactions between the horse and the participant, and ask questions based on what is being revealed through the relationship. At the end of each session, participants have time to process the experience and consider the relevance within context of their lives.
Experiential learning teaches us that principles are just principles until we practice them into reality. Horses teach the dance of good communication. They are tough and steadfast partners. They don’t judge. They don’t forget. Their feedback is immediate and honest.
Experiential learning (Equine Assisted Personal Development / Learning) programs are founded on the belief that change must include direct experience in the processes of growth. All change has some form of experience at base, but experiential learning demands that the learner be placed as close as possible to that base of origin. Experiential learning often requires problem solving, curiosity and inquiry. It is sometimes loosely defined as “learning by doing combined with reflection.” It is active rather than passive, requiring the learner to be self-motivated and responsible for learning and the “teacher” to be responsible to, and not for, the learner. Like experiential learning, Equine Assisted Personal Development focuses on placing clients in activities that challenge dysfunctional behaviors and reward functional change.
Horses have a unique capacity to influence people. Through the development of the person-horse bond, horsemanship instruction and equine care, people have the opportunity to participate in a transformative intrapersonal process. In order to benefit the person and the horse, the relationship requires constancy of attention, time in, responsiveness, assertiveness, communication and relationship skills. Each of these components has been recognized as an active ingredient required for secure attachments.
We are often asked, “Why horses? Why not other animals?” Horses are large and powerful, so their size alone provides a natural opportunity to overcome fear and develop confidence. Accomplishing a task involving the horse creates confidence and provides opportunities to experience and formulate life metaphors that translate well when dealing with life’s other intimidating and challenging circumstances.
Horses are also like humans in that they are social animals. They have defined roles within their herds. They would rather be with their peers. They have distinct personalities, attitudes, and moods. An approach that seems to work with one horse does not necessarily work with another. At times, they can seem stubborn and defiant. They like to have fun. In other words, horses provide vast opportunities for metaphorical learning. Using metaphors, in discussion or activity, is an effective technique when working with individuals or groups struggling to gain self-efficacy.
In an era when immediate gratification seems to be the norm, horses require people to be engaged both physically and mentally. Half measures and partial commitment fail completely. Maturity has been termed the capacity to be assigned a task, or assign a task to yourself, and see it through without being monitored. Equine Wellness is, at its essence, the maturing process between a person and a horse. Skills and attitudes acquired during this process are transferable and portable.
Most importantly, horses have the ability to mirror exactly what human body language tells them. The lesson to be learned is that if people change themselves, horses respond differently. Horses are honest, which makes them especially powerful mirrors into our own psyche, allowing them to serve as accurate messengers of self-knowledge. Horses immediately sense and respond to negative emotions and behaviors. This forces students to be accountable for their emotions, and to recognize the effects that their emotions and behaviors can have on others.
Unlike humans, horses have no hidden agenda or conflicting feelings. Horses do not respond positively to faulty forms of communication (such as manipulation, bullying, or passive/aggressive behavior) that many students have become accustomed to using. To be successful with a horse, controlled and effective body language is essential, which forces participants to be aware of their methods of communication and to problem solve when these methods don’t produce the desired results.
Horses also model the importance of fun. They require us to focus and to practice our theories. Horses teach the dance of good communication. What works one time may need adjustment; creativity and bravery are in needed to repair miscommunication. The horse instinctively mirrors what we need to see in ourselves by magnifying problem areas. Our work demonstrates compelling evidence that horses are masterful teachers in family dynamics, social rules, discipline, nurturing, respect and trust.
Teaching Horsemanship principles to students and having students teach the horses require us to focus and to practice the art of arts, our grand relationship principles. Principles are just principles, until we practice them into reality. Horses teach the dance of good communication. They are tough and steadfast partners. They don’t judge. They don’t forget. They don’t let you slide. Their feedback is immediate and honest to the core. Relationships with horses hold answers to us, relationships, intimacy, into me I see.
Experiential learning is predicated on the belief that change occurs when people are placed outside positions of comfort (e.g., homeostasis, acquiescence) and into states of dissonance. In these states, participants are challenged by the adaptations necessary to reach equilibrium. Several elements are inherent to this process.
- The learner is a participant rather than a spectator in learning.
- Learning activities require personal motivation in the form of energy, involvement and responsibility.
- The learning activity is real and meaningful in terms of natural consequences.
- Reflection is a critical element of the learning process.
- Learning must have present and future relevance for the learner and the society in which he/she is a member.
What the horse truly asks of us is that we be fully alive, awake and present. To genuinely find the freedom that the horse symbolized takes hard work, determination, honesty, and self-awareness. The reward is reclamation of the self, an enhanced life, and healthier relationships. – Johann Wolfgang Goethe